What Now for Howe?

At the close of my last post, I posed an important question: “Does Howe Public Schools represent an innovative model that other districts should seek to emulate or, on the contrary, is Howe a failing school district as evidenced by the State A-F Report Card?”

I wonder how Superintendent Barresi would respond to this seeming contradiction. In yesterday’s newsletter, Dr. Barresi reiterated her praise for the A-F system by saying the report card, “offers easy-to-understand information to communities about how their local schools are doing.”

What the hell is so easy-to-understand about a school district like Howe earning an “F” and being labeled as one of the worst schools in Oklahoma? Based on Barresi’s previous remarks about the district, this clearly cannot be an accurate appraisal of this school.

Why don’t we label everything in life with a single letter grade? Instead of confusing their patients with results from multiple diagnostic tests and complicated medical measurements, why don’t physicians just give us a single letter grade. Here’s how it would work.

Me: Doctor Smith, how is my health?
Dr. Smith: Well, Rob, overall you’re in relatively good health. However, your diastolic pressure is a little high and I’m concerned about your T3 levels. Your triglycerides are also a bit elevated and your LDL/HDL ratio could be better.
Me: Whoa Doc! I didn’t ask for all that. I’m not smart enough to comprehend all that complicated medical jargon. Just give me an easy-to-understand letter grade.
Dr: What do you mean? I cannot possibly narrow your overall fitness level to a single measurement?
Me: Sure you can. Don’t worry, as long as I’m a “B-” or higher, I won’t have to worry about anything and I can get off my diet.
Dr: That’s nonsense! In some areas of health you would earn an “A”. In some others you might be a “C”.
Me: So you’re saying I’m a “C”? I work out and eat well. How can that be?
Dr: That’s not what I said! You are healthy in many ways, but there are a few things we need to pay attention to.
Me: Never mind, Doctor Smith. I just can’t understand all these numbers and big words! I’ll just take my “C” and go on. See you next year.

Ridiculous, I know. That’s how I feel about A-F as well!

While gathering research for this series, I spoke with Howe Superintendent Scott Parks by phone in his office. I greatly respect Scott’s candor and willingness to share his district’s story with me. More than anything else, I appreciate Scott’s vision and passion for doing what is right for kids. His efforts to transform Howe Public Schools into a national model are nothing short of inspirational.

When I called, Scott was in his office working on a grant application. Unlike other grants for which he had applied in previous years, this application was not for technology, but was instead being written for a SDE School Improvement Grant (SIG). Districts selected for these grants are provided additional funding and resources over multiple years. As you might expect,there are significant strings attached. Yet, as the superintendent of a small district with limited resources, Scott has to seek out funding from every possible source. Either that or face the prospect of cutting budgets and reducing staff.

Let’s take a look at the attached strings. According to the State Department website, any Priority school selected for the grant must implement one of four school intervention models.

1) Turnaround model – Replace the principal (although a recently hired principal where a turnaround, restart, or transformation was instituted in the past two years may be retained, if agreed upon by the LEA, SEA, and USDE), rehire no more than 50% of the staff, and grant greater autonomy to the principal.

2) Restart model – Convert a school or close and reopen a school under a charter school operator, a charter management organization, or an education management organization that has been selected through a rigorous review process.

3) School closure – Close a school and enroll the students who attended that school in other schools in the LEA that are higher achieving.

4) Transformation model – Implement each of the following strategies: (1) replace the principal (although a principal recently hired where a turnaround, restart, or transformation was instituted in the last two years may be retained, if agreed upon by the LEA, SEA, and USDE) and implement a rigorous staff evaluation and development system; (2) institute comprehensive instructional reforms; (3) increase learning time and apply community-oriented schools strategies; (4) reward staff who increase student achievement and graduation rates and remove staff who have not improved after ample opportunity; and (4) provide operational flexibility and sustained support.

Don’t you love these choices? #3 is not an option for small districts. #1 would not be possible unless Scott was willing to replace his exceptional elementary school principal and somehow recruit enough teachers to Howe, Oklahoma to replace half his staff. #2 would mean selling out to a charter operator. That leaves option four, the Transformational Model. Exactly how would our SDE move to transform a school that is already transformational?

Three words come to mind when I read this: ridiculous, insane, asinine!

I’m sorry, I feel a rant coming on.

What the hell do the folks at the State Department of Education know about running a high-poverty, isolated rural district?

What matters here is what is best for the children of Howe, Oklahoma. And who knows this better than anyone? The teachers and parents of Howe, Oklahoma–certainly NOT the bureaucrats at 2500 North Lincoln!

I’m angered at the continued sacrifices made on the altar of adults screwing up kids’ lives. Talk about losing a generation of kids. Don’t let Janet Barresi or any of her fellow deformers fool you. THEY are the establishment.

Their test-centric, hyper-accountability mentality has been the status quo for over a decade. The deformers say they want schools to have autonomy, be innovative and think outside the box. They lie! If they believed this, they wouldn’t impose ridiculous mandates like A-F and TLE.

They say that teachers and leaders must be held accountable, but where is their accountability when crap like this happens. Get out of Howe’s business and let them get back to educating their kids for success in life–not just to do well on standardized tests.

According to Howe’s leaders, as a direct result of the district’s “F” grade, some teachers have moved away from an emphasis on project-based learning to more test-prep activities. They are making fewer requests to the district Technology Instructor, Tammy Parks, to implement technology-based learning in their classrooms. I get it. This is a very natural response to this situation and most of us would behave in the very same way.  An “F” is unacceptable and the teachers of Howe are focused on ensuring students are better prepared to take these tests this year.

But what happens if bringing back more traditional teaching strategies actually brings their scores up? This will simply empower the naysayers and it will be very difficult to return to the district’s original vision for 21st century teaching and learning–processes that create globally competent critical thinkers instead of just good test takers.

In essence, Howe is a microcosm of American public schools. We are at a crossroads and the direction we choose to follow will in large part dictate our future as a world leader. We are becoming more and more like China where the pursuit of higher test scores is the only game in town.

A must-read book for anyone concerned about the direction of American schools is Yong Zhao’s Catching Up or Leading the Way. Rather than focusing on “raising the bar” through tougher standards and more tests, he suggests we have much more to gain by enhancing what is best in American schools – our spirit of creativity and innovation. The precise things that are happening in Howe Public Schools.

Zhao makes a strong case that uniform tests result in monolithic thinking. In the modern global economy, the passion that results when people are allowed to develop along diverse paths is far more precious than the large-scale mediocrity that results from national standards and a test-centered (or “data-driven”) school culture.

In the new global economy, the jobs that exist now might not exist by the time today’s students enter the workplace. To succeed in this ever-changing world, students need to be able to think like entrepreneurs: resourceful, flexible, creative, and global. This was exactly what the teachers and leaders in Howe were doing and should continue to do.

This quote from Zhao’s book should be hammered home to any person in a position of setting education policy:

American education is at a crossroads. Two paths lie in front of us: one in which we destroy our strengths in order to catch up with others on test scores and one in which we build on our strengths so we can keep the lead in innovation and creativity. The current push for more standardization, centralization, high stakes testing, and test-based accountability is rushing us down the first path, while what will keep America truly strong and American prosperous should be the latter, the one that cherishes individual talents, cultivates creativity, celebrates diversity, and inspires curiosity. As we enter a new world rapidly changed by globalization and technology, we need to change course. Instead of instilling fear in the public about the rise of other countries, bureaucratizing education with bean-counting policies, demoralizing educators through dubious accountability measures, homogenizing school curriculum, and turning children into test takers, we should inform the public about the possibilities brought about by globalization, encourage education innovations, inspire educators with genuine support, diversify and decentralize curriculum, and educate children as confident, unique, and well-rounded human beings.

Finally, I want to share one more quote from education writer Alfie Kohn. He wrote this passage in 2002 for the introduction of Susan Ohanion’s excellent book, “What Happened to Recess and Why Are Our Children Struggling in Kindergarten?”

Of course, we can succeed in raising average test scores. You deprive kids of recess, eliminate music and the arts, cut back the class meetings and discussions of current events, offer less time to read books for pleasure, squeeze out the field trips and interdisciplinary projects and high-quality electives, spend enough time teaching test-taking tricks, and, you bet, it’s possible to raise the scores. But that result is meaningless at best. When a school or district reports better test results this year than last, knowledgeable parents and other observers respond by saying, “So what?” (because higher test scores do not necessarily reflect higher quality teaching and learning) – or even, “Uh oh” (because higher test scores may indicate lower quality teaching and learning).

It is my strong opinion that schools like Howe are leading the way in showing how technology and authentic learning can transform the educational experience for children. They do not need to play catch up with anyone.

Many thanks to Scott Parks, his administrators, teachers, and staff for their inspiring work to change lives. Your parents know that there is no better school for their children to learn. Keep up the good fight. You will prevail because YOU ARE RIGHT! We are all proud of you.

‘Howe’ the A-F did this happen?Keeping it Simple!
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